Do you trust your energy audit consultants?

Story

Part of my internship at a city agency was reviewing the energy audit reports submitted by various consulting firms. I was still at school that time. The internship was more like the combination of work and research to learn new things. I enjoyed the work at the office and learned from the smart people around.

But, I found many problems in the energy audit reports I reviewed, for example inconsistent numbers. Do you know what is the worst part? These consultants clearly have a template they use for all the clients. Sometimes, I will see they forgot to change the property names somewhere, maybe in the header or footer. How about the accuracy of the content? I doubt. Sometimes, when I added the breakdown numbers, I found I couldn’t get a 100% or larger than 100%. How could this possibly happen?

Until I got a part-time position in a typical engineering consulting firm, I understood how things happened.

I was contacted by the business owner via email and answered a few “interview questions” over the email about my qualifications and “got the offer”. I was told it’s unpaid for the first 3 months, but sufficient training to compensate. I got a phone call from the business owner and said how “important” I was for the company. He can use the valuable time to develop business while I can help with the report drafting and some research. When I asked the questions about the company size, the answer was blurred.

The first tasks were small. I got some positive feedback. Only one thing I really didn’t understand why he asked me to find expediters who focus on energy audit violation. It was a really wired brief. In my mind, the best way to remove the violation that not submitting the report is very simple: just submit the report as soon as possible. I asked, and I didn’t get any answer. Confused. Question mark!

Then I was given an opportunity to visit a property who is interested in converting the district steam to the natural gas system. I thought it was a great opportunity to learn from the business owner, who is the P.E. and LEED AP. We visited the site together, and another hired consultant who will do the design for the new system. I was asked to get as much as information possible during the site visit to do a preliminary stetting for energy modeling (eQuest). It was fine for me, I did energy modeling for two different buildings with my coursework at school.

Unfortunately, I got very limited information during the visit when we were at the mechanical room and the rooftop. Anyone familiar with eQuest understands that all the parameters you put to the tool affect the result you got. The first and the most important lesson I learned from my energy modeling class at school was “garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO). I don’t want to be the person to be fooled or fool any clients who trust us and give us the work.

I raised my questions about the missing information which we suppose to get from drawings or measurement. I couldn’t believe I was asked to get them online. Well, I can get some information from the government website which still inconsistent among different agencies. For example, the number of  floors of the building. Such a simple but important parameter for energy model. I got different numbers from the Dept of Buildings and Dept of Finance. But, but, but, the numbers on the government website are all wrong. During the site visit, the person who operates the property told us something different.

Then I got my second question: how can I believe the floor area listed online is correct. I don’t want to write a long story to make you feel boring. But I was suggested to input something from the rough calculation which is based on multiple online resources which I don’t think anyone should cite or refer. For example, using Google Street View to estimate the window-to-wall ratio. Excuse me? Google Street View? Is it a professional way to do the work? I couldn’t understand why a building recently certified by GBCI (USGBC) as LEED O+M Silver doesn’t have the drawings. As an energy consultant, as a P.E., how can he ask his intern/part-time to put something unverified by either the drawings or measurement?

Last questions are all about the HVAC systems in that building. I used it as an opportunity to learn. I couldn’t figure out how to input district steam to eQuest. The guy couldn’t answer my question either. Well, I understand like some professors at Arch school don’t use the latest version CAD for a while. But how about the HVAC system? It should be his expertise. I don’t have the information about the HVAC systems. Surprisingly, neither did he.

I left the company about 2.5 months. I was a little bit nervous because I was required to sign an agreement to commit for at least a year. I think it’s completely void. Additionally, I think it is illegal not paying for the interns.

Everything was against my ethical system. The baseline is I couldn’t do something I know as garbage to fool a client. I had 6.5-year client service experience in strategic planning at Mindshare. Minshare is not in the energy efficiency field, but communication and marketing sector. The professionalism and the integrity are the core value I shared with Mindshare. Mindshare is the best company I worked with so far. You are not allowed to mess up even a cent with your clients. The powerful system provides the most accurate reporting and prevents the mistakes as much as possible.

I should have checked the company on Glassdoor. But I think Glassdoor only works well for big firms. In the cases of small companies, if you write too specific it will be very easy to figure out who you are. It is such a small world, who knows some people has great ego will do something to jeopardize your career?

I would say, this is a very common practice. Because I heard similar stories from other people. The company is a very typical one in the city. The business owner has a P.E. license. It is like the privilege to stamp on the documents. He/she hires interns to write reports using some templates. He/she may review the reports or pay for other professionals do the review. He/she stamps on the documents. Done.

Result

How about the clients? As a client, can you trust the consultants you hired? Can you identify the potential problems? Are you professional enough to find anything seems not right?

How about the policy makers? You largely rely on the data from all the reports these consultants submit. The law enforcement agency will check the basics of their reports. But my question is why I still found so many obvious questions. Of course, there are more I couldn’t find with my limited knowledge when I was still at school.

More and more cities and states make more stringent regulations which require energy audit or other compliance. It created job opportunities for professionals. But it also raises new issues on how to regulate these consultants, not only P.E.(s), but also CEM/CEA(s).

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